Both football (also called association football or soccer) and mental health disorders have a global impact on the lives of billions of people. Football has been used to approach and support subjects with or at risk of mental health disorders. However, it is not clear if football itself has any beneficial effect on the mental health of players, fans or spectators. Consequently, the aim of the current systematic review was to examine if playing or watching football impacts on the frequency of mental health problems in people who are involved in playing or watching the game.
We performed a systematic review on the relationship between football and mental health disorders. A total of 662 abstracts were screened initially. We identified 17 relevant papers assessing the prevalence of mental health disorders in current and previous football players, referees or spectators.
The prevalence and 12 months incidence of mental health problems in active and retired professional players and referees were similar to or higher than those found in the general population, possibly as response to osteoarthritis, severe injuries, career dissatisfaction, low social support and poor employment status after retirement. Studies in adolescent amateurs and spectators indicate that playing and watching football games may negatively affect subjective mental health, even though qualitative studies indicate mental health benefits of playing or watching football.
Players, referees and spectators are unlikely to present with fewer mental health problems than other members of society as a result of their involvement with football. It appears that some of the infrastructure that supports resilience in mental health such as a sense of inclusion, shared purpose and positive peer identification might be developed by playing in or supporting a team. Strategies that may use the assumed positive aspects of football need to be validated before implementation of large projects.